Vibrant prospects for medical, wellness tourism

As regional competition heats up in a niche market boasting boundless potential, Thailand is angling to make itself the top destination for foreign visitors looking to cure what ails them. By Suchat Sritama

above  Mr Thiravud Khuhaprema shows off Edge, an 180-million-baht machine imported from the US to treat cancer.

Thailand hopes to become a preferred medical and wellness destination, betting on a visa extension scheme, ample niche facilities and the convenience of health facilities across the country.

Medical and wellness tourism is booming in Thailand, mainly due to the rise of the middle class and modern health-conscious consumers. Studies reveal that globally, this niche segment is to grow by 16% a year.

The number of international medical tourism visits to Thailand this year should reach 2.4 million, with an additional 900,000 hospital visits by expatriates in Thailand. But medical businesses face tough competition from the many new operators in the market, while regional rivals Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea are stepping up their game.

Visa extension

To promote Thailand as a preferred medical and wellness destination, the Tourism and Sports Ministry and the Health Ministry are offering more foreign citizens visas for medical-related travel, including those from Japan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

The two ministries have agreed to lengthen the stay for foreign patients who need treatment in Thailand to 90 days.

This 90-day visa is already available to foreign patients from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam (CLMV) and China.

Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said that CLMV countries will be the key focus for medical tourism because of high demand. With medical visa extensions, many hospitals and healthcare centres as well as small outlets across the country will reap the rewards.

Apart from the medical visa scheme, the government recently approved visa extensions for foreigners aged over 50 years, with length of stay increasing from five years to 10.

Mrs Kobkarn said the government has been promoting healthcare and medical services to international visitors under a national tourism campaign over the past few years. Major hospitals in Thailand are also focusing on the personal care business and offering world-class facilities, foreign language interpreters and special treatment. Many Thai-registered hospitals are JCI accredited and boast top ISO standards.

Moreover, many more health and wellness services can be found on almost any street corner in tourist areas, from spa and beauty treatments, yoga, massage, Thai boxing and other sports and fitness activities.

TAT promotes longevity

Noppadon Pakprot, deputy governor for domestic marketing at the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said the TAT recently organised a health and wellness tourism showcase under the theme “Thailand: Paradise for Longevity”, to promote the country as a destination for related products and services.

Medical tourism facilitators and travel agencies from 30 countries have discussed business deals with participating health and wellness providers.

Thailand has been touted as Asia’s anti-ageing centre leader, with 500 medical specialists in the sector, on top of the largest number of American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine-certified medical professionals in the region.

Hotels and wellness

The Economic Intelligence Center at SCB has said that hotel operators could get an edge as it is easier for them to adapt their businesses to wellness tourism than other industries. This is because the industry can reach out to customers directly and therefore create added value by offering activities relating to wellness tourism.

By doing so, operators can cooperate with local business partners in order to expand the variety of services or develop new features based on their current business models, such as sea-sand scrubs, pearl spas and local aromatherapy, creating a unique atmosphere and offering customers new experiences.

A study conducted by CBRE has shown that hotels in the US that offer spa services substantially boost daily revenue by 14-28% compared with their rivals.

Wellness tourism has opportunities to create more added value for the Thai economy.

The number of wellness tourists coming to Thailand grew 7% annually from 2013-15. The Thai market is valued at 320 billion baht and ranked 13th in the world and fourth in Asia, after China, Japan and India.

Wellness tourism accounts for 3% of the Thai GDP, with 90% of its receipts coming from beauty and anti-ageing businesses, preventive medicine, and sport and adventure tourism. The other 10% are spa treatment businesses.

Moreover, wellness tourists spend 61% more than the average tourists due to their high purchasing power and longer duration of stay. Growing life expectancies worldwide, health consciousness and increased travel for leisure will create myriad opportunities for the industry.

Kasikorn Research Center predicts that revenue from international patients at private hospitals will generate 48 billion baht this year, a 3-4 % increase year-on-year. The centre said patients from the Middle East have declined due to adjustments of healthcare policies in some countries, along with improvements in the quality and standards of public healthcare. Therefore, patients from other places such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Japan have increased.

Niche services

Bangkok Dusit Medical Services Plc (BDMS) is adding medical services and facilities to capitalise on the thriving market.

Thiravud Khuhaprema, director of Wattanosoth Hospital, part of BDMS, said the group’s latest investment and expansion included Chiva Transitional Care Hospital, which was established to provide elderly care and rehabilitation, especially for those who require extended hospitalisation.

Additionally, a Phoenix project is now in service at Bangkok Hospital headquarters. It is designed specifically to focus on neurology, orthopaedics, longevity care and rehabilitation.

The group is expanding Samitivej Sukhumvit Hospital to serve mainly Japanese patients, and the seven-storey International Hospital will be dedicated to foreign markets.

Furthermore, a new Bangkok Hospital in Chiang Rai is scheduled to open in 2018, with the first phase with 56 beds targeting patients from the upper northern region as well as southern China, Laos and Myanmar.

The budget for investment and expansion has not yet been disclosed.

But Mr Thiravud said they had purchased an 180-million baht machine used to treat cancer.

The new equipment, called Edge, was imported from the US and is now located at the cancer hospital in the BDMS complex.

“With the new equipment, Wattanosoth can serve demand from Thailand and elsewhere such as China, Myanmar, the Middle East, Cambodia, Brunei as well as expatriates working across the region,” he said.

The hospital said the cost of medical treatment, including that for cancer, is 50% cheaper in Thailand than in Singapore and 30% lower than in Hong Kong.

The hospital expects to increase the percentage of foreign cancer patients from 45% to 50% in the first year of operations.

Apart from the new machine, Wattanosoth is planning to expand capacity from 48 beds to 80-100 beds by 2019. The hospital will also double the number of doctors and supporting teams, as well as nurses.

BDMS last year acquired Swissotel Park Nai Lert Hotel for more than 10 billion baht, which will function as a wellness clinic. The group has set the ambitious plan of becoming one of the biggest medical providers in the region. By 2018, the group aims to increase its number of hospitals from 45 to 50. The group is also strengthening itself to become one of best medical service providers in Asia-Pacific.

BDMS reported consolidated operating income for the first six months of 2017 at 34.5 billion baht, up 5% year-on-year. The growth is attributable to an increase in revenue from hospital operations, as prices have gone up.

A X-ray technician assists a patient at Vibhavadi Hospital. PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL

The latest technology equipped at Chulalongkorn Hospital’s Bhumisiri Mangkhalanusorn Building is intended to put Thailand on the cutting edge of regional medical service. SOMCHAI POOMLARD